I worked around the border for most of the past decade. I came to understand for the first time just how unnatural the border is to many people there as they go about their daily business. It gave me a very real and practical sense of their innate Irishness for the first time and I understand exactly why so many people in the border counties were so uncomfortable with Brexit. I shared their discomfort and voted to remain. But I rarely sense the same understanding of how the other section of our community has an equally real Britishness. Not a British identity. Not a sense of Britishness. But real, honest to God British people who just want to get on with their lives without unnecessary hindrance.
That’s what was missing from Senator Mark Daly’s 2019 report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement on the issue of “Unionist Concerns & Fears of a United Ireland – The Need to Protect the Peace Process & Build a Vision for a Shared Island & A United People”, That report is increasingly worth discussing in the current climate. By and large the make-up of the committee was sadly predictable, and that led to a focus on some “concerns and fears” that are very wide of the mark.
The “seven central concerns of United Ireland by Unionists” were listed as follows:
- Health & Economy
We can rule out land and the EU as significant fears among the unionists I mingle with (from whatever background). Unionists never tangibly suffered from EU membership and the idea of Zimbabwean land grabs on Protestant farmers by the Dail is a nonsense, as proved by the ownership of much farmland in the border counties. So let’s get rid of that idea.
Perhaps controversially I don’t see identity as an issue. We get a lot of rhetoric over the ability of Unionists to retain their passports following a loss in a border poll. Also about a willingness to tolerate loyal order demonstrations post unity. But unionism isn’t about identity. It’s about living in a fully legally constituted region of the UK. Unionists don’t identify as British. They ARE British. Northern Ireland ceasing to exist within the UK would be create a loss of much more than identity. Acceptance of a few parades (which most unionists never participate in or watch) wouldn’t even begin to make a dent in what would have been lost forever.
I’m not a flag waver, I’m not even a patriot in any meaningful sense and I don’t celebrate national anniversaries with any great vigour, and I don’t envisage participating in Northern Ireland’s centenary events. They just aren’t my thing. But I have a comfortable and confident sense of belonging in the UK, having spent many years living and working in many parts of England and Scotland and feeling completely at home in all those places.
Health and the economy are two completely different issues that have been lazily combined in the report. Again they are not the reasons why Unionists wish to remain British. We value the NHS, but I haven’t heard any unionist say that if it was replicated in the Republic then they would abandon their Britishness. Healthcare is occasionally employed for debating purposes as a stick with which to beat the Republic, but not with any great sense of understanding. Again people’s belief in the union is much bigger than that.
Potential violence is also not a reason why unionists oppose a United Ireland. Presumably any such violence (if there was any) would be instigated by anti-UI forces. Its counter intuitive to say a community would oppose something because of the violence its suggested that same community would cause. I can understand people in the Republic being concerned at that potential violence but if it occurred it would be because of Irish Unity, and as a reaction to an unwelcome change in circumstances. So it’s not why unionists are unionist.
That leaves us with triumphalism and retribution. These are very real issues for even those wavering on the union and it seems no one of influence within northern nationalism has any great desire to address them.
These vices won’t come from the Republic. Naomi O’Leary of the Irish Times tweeted recently that “The level of ignorance in the republic about the North does stop me in my tracks sometimes.” My own response to that was “I don’t see why it should. The Republic is a mature society, confident in its own strengths and just getting on with life the way mature societies. That’s perfectly healthy. Why should they obsess about Northern Ireland?” There was a fair amount of agreement from southern based responses but from the northern nationalist twitterati there was the usual indignance and blanket denial. But I believe Naomi is closer to the mark. There is little appetite in the Republic for triumphalism over displaced unionists in a United Ireland. Let alone retribution of any description. In fact I detect a greater understanding than before of respective positions between people on either side of the. border.
But in Northern Ireland there is a very real necessity for mainstream nationalism to step back from the evident growth of an attitude that is dangerous and unsettling. The EU Protocol is not something I feel terribly undermined by in terms of lifestyle or identity (though I do think it’s unnecessarily provocative on behalf of the EU), but it has led to very visible signs of triumphalism and majoritarianism within nationalist politics. An attitude that indicates to me that if demographics get them over the BP hurdle, they will see no need to consider our input, let alone consent, to be necessary to forging the new society they claim to want. Increasingly we see an attitude of demographics rendering empathy or compromise unnecessary.
In conclusion, what is most striking omission in Senator Daly’s list of presumed unionist concerns and fears is any acknowledgement of fears from within one whole side of the community of simply not being considered or noticed at all. When Unionism had the overwhelming numbers back in the day, they didn’t feel the need to consider nationalist feelings, and they built a cold house, as David Trimble famously said. One would hope that, rather than being Hell bent on a desire for retribution for the injustices of previous generations, northern nationalists would have learned from that grave error. Trimble said that unionism built a solid house but a cold one.
If Trimble was right (and no one seriously questions that he was), then a house built on fifty per cent plus one would be not only cold but not even solid. Not because of any suggestion of potential risk of violence, but because dismissal of unionist concerns will inevitably drive away any potential support for a united Ireland from even those “liberal” middle-class Protestants who want their children to do the Erasmus programmes. Northern nationalism should be wooing them with genuine, sincere visions of how they’ll be embraced and cherished in a United Ireland, not ignored, or have their Britishness regarded as a false consciousness to be frozen out of them.
Can they do that? Do enough of them want to? Do they even know it’s a problem? The jury is well and truly out on that one.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.